Presentation to Commissioners Court Shows Public Safety Buildings Reaching End of Life, Creating Safety and Financial Concerns
Hays County Courthouse, San Marcos, TX – A compelling presentation to the Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday by a committee formed to look at public safety facility issues and solutions verified the need renovate and expand the current county jail and add a separate communications (9-1-1 dispatch) and law enforcement center for a Hays County that has exploded in population since the existing facilities were built.
The Hays County Jail was built in 1989 when the population was some 65,000 people – now close to 200,000 – and is plagued with issues from aging safety electronics to space for related functions, such as evidence processing and storage, in addition to lacking space for a growing inmate population that necessitates the costly housing of prisoners in other county jails.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley called the jail “a money pit” that has had every bit of value squeezed out of it. “We’re now throwing good money after bad,” he said.
Sheriff Gary Cutler told the Court that repairs to the jail are costly and time consuming and that some security equipment is so old that parts are no longer available. His office has spent some $2 million on repairs in recent years to fix roof, HVAC and kitchen issues in order to comply with state standards. The misdemeanor population in the jail has been reduced to three percent through the use of diversionary tactics such as cite- and-release and the use of ankle monitors where appropriate, more stop-gap measures to reduce the jail population.
County Judge Bert Cobb, M.D., noted that the County is required by law to provide a jail, and that the jail has to meet certain state and federal law standards. “Just because we have a certain number of beds doesn’t mean that all those beds can be used,” he said. “Laws provide that inmates be categorized and be housed in certain groups, and our jail was not built for that.” One law requires that 17-year-olds be housed separately from older prisoners, even those who’ve committed the same crime. Inmates that suffer from mental health issues must also be housed separately from the main population.
Assistant Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards Shannon Herklotz told the Court that his office has worked with the jail staff to ensure compliance in areas that are failing, but that there is only so much that can be done with a jail that is close to its 30-year expected life and is lacking necessary space for offenders, who must be classified and housed in specific ways. He also noted that outsourcing inmates to other counties is considered a temporary solution to a long-term problem and that the County should be concerned with liability and public safety issues that come with transportation of inmates. The County currently houses some 100 inmates in jails in five other counties – one more than 170 miles away.
Herklotz went on to say that the current jail lacks a sufficient number of infirmary beds – the four it was built with should be increased to a minimum of 25 to serve the current population. There is also a need for additional beds for female inmates, who have increased in number from two in the early 1990s to more than 60 today.
Long-distance housing of inmates affects the District Attorney’s Office as well, often requiring rescheduling of hearings because defense attorneys aren’t always able to talk with their clients before their trial begins in Hays County.
“We’ve looked at and studied the need to renovate and expand our jail since at least 2007,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe said. “We need to ensure that both our public, our jail staff and our inmates are safe and that our communications center, which ultimately will dispatch for most jurisdictions in Hays County, can accommodate the dispatchers, equipment and updated communications equipment that is now required to get law enforcement, fire and EMS first responders to where they are needed in a coordinated way throughout a large geographic area.”
The Commissioners Court directed staff to focus on refining the mid-range option of three that were presented for a potential bond election. It will expand the current jail at its Uhland Road site and allow for future expansion when needed, and move the Law Enforcement Center, Communications Center and Emergency Operations Center to a new building at the Government Center location on South Stagecoach Trail. The cost is expected to be up to $108 million for the proposal. The Court will decide on August 16 whether to authorize a bond referendum for the jail renovation and related buildings.
Here’s the presentation that includes details of the issues, proposals, site plans and costs, and to view the video of the speakers’ presenting to the Commissioner Court, click here.